Tuesday, December 25, 2012


To commemorate this blessed season, here's William Christie leading his Baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants in Handel's Messiah.

Happy Holidays to one and all!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, at the MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art is presenting Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925, a survey of 350 works from the beginning of the 20th century that trace the development of non-representational art.

Far from being a rehash of familiar images, the show includes many small paintings, drawings, photographs, and mixed media pieces that I've never seen before, from artists who are totally unfamiliar to me.

The exhibit conveys the spirit of experimentation and rebellion of artists who didn't quite know what they were aiming for and yet produced strikingly original bodies of work. Even the painters who are now known for having a distinct style, like Josef Albers and Piet Mondrian, did things early on in their careers that seem, in retrospect, totally fresh and daring.

The show merits repeated visits and will be on view until April 15, 2013.

František Kupka
Mme. Kupka dans les verticales (Mme. Kupka among the verticals) (1910-11)
Oil on canvas, 53 3/8 x 33 5/8" (135.5 x 85.3 cm)

Anton Giulio Bragaglia
Un gesto del capo (A gesture of the head) (1911)
Gelatin silver print, 7 x 5" (17.8 x 12.7 cm)

Robert Delaunay
Soleil, lune, simultané 2 (Sun, Moon, Simultaneous 2) (1912)
Oil on canvas, diam.: 53" (134.5 cm)

Francis Picabia 
 La Source (The spring) (1912)
Oil on canvas, 8' 2 1/4" x 8' 2 1/8" (249.6 x 249.3 cm)

Wyndham Lewis
Portrait of an Englishwoman (1913 or 1914)
Ink, pencil and watercolor on paper, 22 1/16 x 14 15/16" (56 x 38 cm)

Umberto Boccioni
Dinamismo di un foot-baller (Dynamism of a soccer player) (1913)
Oil on canvas, 6' 4 1/8" x 6' 7 1/8" (193.2 x 201 cm)

Sonia Delaunay-Terk
 Prismes électriques (Electric prisms) (1913)
Oil on canvas, 22 1/16 x 18 1/2" (56 x 47 cm)

Lawrence Atkinson
Vorticist Composition (1914-1915)
Oil on canvas, 41 3/4 x 33 7/16" (106 x 85 cm)

Georgia O'Keeffe 
Blue II (1916)
Watercolor on paper, 27 7/8 x 22 1/4" (78.4 x 56.5 cm)

Patrick Henry Bruce
Composition II (1916)
Oil on canvas, 38 3/8 x 51 1/4" (97.4 x 130.2 cm)

Kurt Schwitters
  Das Kreisen (The revolving) (1919)
Wood, metal, cord, paperboard, fiber, wire, and oil on canvas, 48 3/8 x 35" (122.7 x 88.7 cm)

Josef Albers
 Gitterbild (Lattice Picture, also known as Grid Mounted) (1921)
Glass, iron latticework, and copper wire, 13 1/8 x 11 7/8" (33.4 x 30.2 cm)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery

On view at the Frick Collection: Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, a glowing exhibition of fifty-eight drawings from Britain's preeminent research center for art history.

I visited the Courtauld during my last trip to London six years ago and enjoyed its collection of Impressionist paintings. The current show at the Frick reveals the depth of its holdings and includes works from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Modern periods.

This exhibit features many pieces that are being shown in New York for the first time, and the roster of artists includes Andrea Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Charles-Joseph Natoire, Thomas Gainsborough, Francisco Goya y Lucientes, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Théodore Géricault, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso.

The show is a humbling reminder that fine draftmanship is skill that has become increasingly rare in this age of mechanical, mass produced, and assistant driven commercial art.

These inspiring drawings will be on view until January 27, 2013. Don't miss them.

Workshop of Hugo van der Goes (c. 1440?–1485)
A Seated Female Saint, c. 1475–85
Pen, point of the brush and gray ink, heightened with white gouache over preliminary black chalk underdrawing, on green prepared paper

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
A Wise Virgin, 1493
Pen and brown ink on paper

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
Head of the Farnese Hercules, c. 1608–10
Black chalk, heightened with white chalk, on gray paper

Guercino (1591–1666)
A Child Seen from Behind, Standing Between His Mother's Knees, c. 1625
Red chalk with stumping

Pieter Saenredam (1597–1665)
The South Ambulatory of St. Bavokerk, Haarlem, 1634
Pen and brown ink with gray wash, heightened with white gouache, on blue paper

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)
Two Men in Discussion, 1641
Quill and reed pen in brown ink, with corrections in white gouache

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1683–1754)
The Head of a Boy and of an Old Man, c. 1739–40
Black chalk heightened with white chalk, on gray paper

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867)
Study for La Grande Odalisque, 1814

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)
Colchester, Essex, c. 1825–26
Watercolor, white and colored chalks, and gouache, with scraping

Honoré Daumier (1808–79)
Le Malade imaginaire (The Hypochondriac), c. 1850
Black chalks, black ink wash, watercolor and touches of gouache, with pen and point of the brush in brown and black-gray ink

Georges Seurat (1859–91)
Female Nude, c. 1879–81
Black Conté crayon over stumped graphite

Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Woman Adjusting Her Hair, c. 1884
Charcoal, chalk, and pastel, on two sheets of buff-colored paper

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Over the past three weeks I worked on this figure study using acrylic and masking techniques. I was attempting a video static effect inspired by Andy Denzler but using a high key palette. The canvas size is 24 x 30 inches.

Freddy, the model, is an artist and painter as well. We have one more session with him. I may try a quick portrait sketch next weekend.

WIP photos:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving Program at the New York Philharmonic

 (Photo: clevelandclassical.com)

(Photo: bso.org)

Andrey Boreyko, Conductor
Frank Peter Zimmerman, Violin

Mendelssohn - Overture to Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde (Son and Stranger) (1829)
Shostakovich - Violin Concerto No. 1 (1945-48)
Dvořák - Symphony No. 9, From the New World (1893)

On Tuesday night I attended the New York Philharmonic's concert featuring works by Felix Mendelssohn, Dmitri Shostakovich and Antonin Dvořák.

At the age of 20, Mendelssohn composed his one act opera Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde for a private performance for friends and family. The overture remains its best known excerpt and features a sunny virtuosity that reflected the young composer's talents.

The Shostakovich concerto provided a stark change in mood. Its anxious melodic lines and disturbing rhythms probed the depths modern angst. The third and fourth movements contained  many dazzling passages for the soloist which Zimmerman met with ease.

The New York Philharmonic commissioned Dvořák to write his New World Symphony while he was the director of the New York Conservatory from 1892 to 1895. The composer incorporated American spirituals into the score and it was fitting to hear this expansive, optimistic piece as a prelude to Thanksgiving.

It was interesting to hear the Russian conductor Boreyko's interpretation of a Czech composer's impressions of American folk music. Boreyko imbued the performance with a lilting tenderness that somehow seemed fresh and very touching, and taken together with the two earlier pieces fully demonstrated his range as a conductor. I hope that the Philharmonic plans to invite him to lead many future performances.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mahler's Ninth with the Philharmonia Orchestra

(photo: Richard Haughton)

Due to a busy work schedule I haven't been able to blog about concerts lately but I just had to post about the Philharmonia Orchestra's incredible rendition of Mahler's Symphony No. 9 at Avery Fisher Hall last night.

All I can say is WOW. Mahler's Ninth, composed in 1910, is in my opinion one of the highlights of symphonic literature but it is the rare interpretation that can move this sprawling 90 minute score at a good pace and still leave the listener emotionally wrecked by the end.

The conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, did just that. He conducted the esteemed ensemble with glistening precision but not at the expense deeply felt emotion. The final movement in particular was just ravishing with otherworldly strings and slowly dissolving tempi. It felt like Mahler's farewell to romanticism and everything else that he loved in life.

The program, unfortunately, won't be repeated but New Yorkers will have a chance to hear this work again next spring with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


Over the past two Saturdays I continued to experiment with acrylic.

I bought a 30 x 30 inch canvas which is huge for me and the portrait of Juan Michael, the model, was larger than life. I haven't worked with overscaled dimensions before but thought I might as well try it since one of the trends in contemporary portraiture is oversized head shots (see Andrew Salgado, Alyssa Monks, and Tai Schierenberg, among others).

I also tried saturated color, straight from the tube in certain areas like the shirt, hat, and parts of the background. Was I intensifying reality (like Lucian Freud) or flirting with garishness (like Leroy Nieman)? Who knows. I just felt like doing it and the experience was exhilirating. Using intense chroma over a large surface area was like a drug - my teacher had to tell me to stop painting before I ruined the pictorial balance.

We still have two more sessions with our current models. I think I'll continue with acrylic for now. Maybe I'll buy a few new colors or try using a weird surface - like plastic or aluminum. I wonder where I can buy those supports in Manhattan...

Sunday, November 11, 2012

New paintings at the National Academy

Over the past four weeks I've been experimenting with acrylic on large canvases. A friend recently gave me a gift certificate to Utrecht so I spent it on several tubes of Golden acrylic paint. This is a new medium for me. I thought that I'd try to work with its quick drying properties for layering and abstraction.

Acrylic is great stuff. I'll admit that I had a bias against the medium since all the serious painters use oil, but I really liked manipulating its transparencies for atmospheric effects. I think they key is to buy a lot of intermediate pigments to minimize mixing and muddiness. I also tried masking (courtesy of Youtube) to get a prismatic thing going on - not quite resolved yet but I do like the results so far.

Our models were Brian and Jen, both young, goodlooking, and total professionals. It was a pleasure to work with them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Le Nozze di Figaro

(photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

Conductor: David Robertson
Countess Almaviva: Maija Kovalevska
Susanna: Mojca Erdmann
Cherubino: Christine Schäfer
Count Almaviva: Gerald Finley
Figaro: Ildar Abdrazakov
Barbarina: Ashley Emerson
Marcellina: Margaret Latimore
Don Basilio: Don Graham Hall

Work has been insanely hectic for the past few weeks and so I thought I'd take advantage of this hurricane and ensuing office closure to finally update my blog.

Last Friday I attended the season premiere of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. I haven't seen this opera in several years and it was a nearly great performance with Robertson leading the orchestra in top form. The recitatives were accompanied by Dan Saunders on the piano which was a nice change from the traditional harpsichord.

Finley was a fine Count with the appropriately menacing but subdued hauteur that worked for him so well in the title role of Don Giovanni last season. The rest of the cast was new to me. I especially enjoyed the lovely Erdmann as Susanna and Schäfer as Cherubino. Emerson was especially charming as Barbarina. Abdrazakov was a wonderful Figaro with a robust physicality that reminded me of a young Bryn Terfel. Graham Hall as Don Basilio and Latimore as Marcellina were entertaining though a bit one dimensional but then there's not a lot of depth to their characters.

Kovalevska was the weak link in the cast. For Le Nozze to work its magic, the Countess should be a model of virtue and suffering, bringing an emotional gravitas to balance the other characters' ribald humor and silliness. Mozart's music for the Countess is full of exquisite longing but I heard none of that, with Kovaleska barreling through her arias with uneven pitch and monotonous expression. Indeed, in Porgi amor and Dove sono I was wholly unconvinced of her nobility and devotion. Instead she merely seemed like an annoyed Real Housewife whose credit card had been declined during a shopping spree.

One thing about Kovalevska though is that her comic timing was flawless. The closing ensembles in all four acts were sung beautifully in the perfect buffa style. That said, I'm tempted to see the opera again when Hei Kyung Hong takes over the role of the Countess on November 17.

As a side note, the Metropolitan Opera will resume performances tomorrow. The New York Philharmonic announced the same then cancelled a few minutes ago on Twitter and then deleted the tweet announcing the cancellation. Carnegie Hall will remain closed, presumably until that dangling crane that caused the evacuation of West 57th Street gets taken down. But I do hope that Carnegie Hall will be up and running soon. After all, they have a wonderful season ahead and of course, the show must go on.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Last month at the National Academy of Design we had three models, Brian, Betty, and Pigeon.

For the first painting I worked on a larger scale, 18 x 24 inches, but the rest were the usual size, about 9 x 12 inches. I'm still into the theme of impasto against blurred passages though I tried to get away from the vertical palette knife applications that seemed so obsessive earlier this year.

Brian recently moved to NYC and this was his first modelling assignment. I thought he did a great job. not just by being still and holding the pose, but also embodying a certain stage presence (he's a drama student at a conservatory).

Brian will be posing for us again for the next four weeks. I'm thinking of working even larger, maybe 24 x 36 inches, using acrylic. I got a gift certificate from Utrecht recently and splurged it on about fifteen tubes of Golden Artist Colors. I might as well learn a new medium. We'll see how that goes.

Betty's portrait was inspired by the glitch paintings of Andy Denzler.

And Pigeon was based on Ann Gale's technique, with a more intense palette.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Desdemona: Renée Fleming
Otello: Johan Botha
Cassio: Michael Fabiano
Iago: Falk Struckmann
Roderigo: Eduardo Valdes
Emilia: Renée Tatum
Ludovico: James Morris

For me, Otello is one of those operas that's easy to admire but not so easy to love. Musically I think it's one of Verdi's most thrilling achievements with full bodied orchestration, great psychological depth, and some very memorable arias. But the malicious plot is such a downer, and the characters - what can I say - if they're not completely odious they're downright exasperating, except perhaps for Desdemona's maid, Emilia.

That said, I looked forward to last night's premiere of Otello at the Metropolitan Opera. I've been neglecting Verdi over the past several years (in favor of Wagner, mostly), though I did see La Traviata and Macbeth last season. I've also been avoiding Renée Fleming lately - her recent recordings and videos have begun to seem so mannered and artificial that sometimes I can barely recognize what she's singing.

Well, Fleming proved me wrong last night. Her voice may no longer seem as lush as it did ten years ago but her account of Desdemona was a model of integrity. She sang the part without any embellishments and undue emphasis. Her vocal line was pure and her emotional expression was honest and deeply felt. Her fourth act Willow Song and Ave Maria were completely unnerving in their simplicity. No histrionics, just a stoic resignation and acceptance of her fate that pretty much broke my heart.

Botha didn't fare was well in the title role. His voice sounded thin (because of allergies, as a spokesperson explained during the intermission) and his characterization was cartoonish.

Struckmann, on the other hand, was fantastic as Iago. Like Fleming, there was no overacting, he just sung his part with such tremendous authority that his every inflection sent chills through the audience. Fabiano likewise made a fine impression as Cassio, and so did Tatum as Emilia and Valdes as Roderigo.

Morris proved that he can still command the stage even with bit parts. It was a nice surprise to hear him as Ludovice. The chorus sounded a bit out of synch in the beginning but improved in the later acts.

Bychkov conducted with passion and conjured many wonderful effects in both the public and intimate scenes. The orchestra served Verdi well last night. I just might see the rest of the composer's offerings at the Met this season.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Adam Sheffer on Galleries and the Art World

Adam Sheffer, a partner at the Cheim & Read Gallery (whose roster includes Louise Bougeois, Robert Mapplethorpe, Joan Mitchell, and Jenny Holzer, among others) talked about the ins and outs of the big stakes gallery world at the New York Academy of Art's Professional Practice Series on September 11, 2012.

Sheffer had a lot of valuable advice for young artists who are seeking to cultivate contacts with dealers (hint: network like crazy but don't be too pushy). There were also some interesting questions from the New York Academy students, particularly on the economics of art exhibits.

Shaffer has a wonderfully engaging personality with lots of anecdotes about both struggling and famous artists. This 75 minute video was a pleasure to watch. It's essential viewing for anyone who is curious about the scene behind the gallery scene, and how dealers go about choosing contemporary works that could possibly change the course of art history.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Alex Kanevsky at the New York Academy of Art


Art exists in thie weird gray area between your competence and your incompetence. You know they kind of intersect. If you're always doing what you're competent in, then you're not terribly creative. Dentists do that. They don't need to be creative, they just need to drill teeth well. So they learn a set of skills and then they practice. On the other hand you don't want to be completely incompetent either because then the results are not very good either. But somewhere in between there is a small gray area where one wants to be. And that requires openness to experimentation and at the same time a certain ruthlessness with your own work.  

- Painter Alex Kanevsky, New York Academy of Art, September 26, 2012.

48" x 48", oil on board

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Yayoi Kusama Drawings from the Mid-50s at the D'Amelio Gallery

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Whitney Museum is a fun show. It's a curious mix of the whimsical and the grotesque though I didn't find it as crazy as Kusama's exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1998, which featured her works from 1958-1968, her decade in New York City.

It's easy to be dismissive Kusama's most recent efforts, particularly her high profile collaboration with Louis Vuitton and the ensuing media blitz. Selling out would be putting things mildly. Her latest works on view at the Whitney feel empty, with a mechanical feel that contrasts with the humble scale of her heartfelt pieces at the beginning of her career.

So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the D’Amelio Gallery's show in Chelsea, Yayoi Kusama Drawings from the Mid-50s featuring twelve works on paper dating from 1953 -1957, all from the collection of Richard Castellane, Kusama’s New York dealer in the mid sixties.

The show illuminated my favorite period of Kusama's oeuvre, just before she went large scale, obsessive, and commercial. The D'Amelio pictures were executed in tempera, pastel, watercolor, and ink, and have a certain introspection of a struggling artist going within by exploring incandescent objects in dark, infinite space. They also presage Kusama's mental problems and fixation with repetitive forms in her later work.

It's a rare glimpse into Kusama's formative years and, in my opinion, perhaps the most deeply affecting expression of her creative vision. This exhibit will be on view until October 20, 2012.

Column No.1 (1953)
Tempera and pastel on buff paper
15 x 12 3/4 inches

Snow Ball in Sunset (Snow Ball in Sansunset) (1953) 
Pastel and tempera with black ink on red paper 
10 1/2 x 10 inches

Archaic Dance Costume (1953) 
Ink and gouache on paper 
11 5/8 x 8 7/8 inches

Ground (1953) 
Pastel, watercolor and ink 
14 1/8 x 10 inches

Tree No.1 (1953) 
Black ink and tempera on buff paper 
14 x 9 7/8 inches

Monday, September 24, 2012

Opening Night at the New York Philharmonic

(photo courtesy of The New York Times)

Alan Gilbert - Conductor
Leif Ove Andsnes - Piano

GYÖRGY KURTÁG -  ... quasi una fantasia ... Op. 27, No. 1 (1987–88)
BEETHOVEN - Piano Concerto No. 3 (1803)
STRAVINSKY - Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13)

Last Wednesday the New York Philharmonic opened its season with a program featuring works by Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Hungarian composer György Kurtág.

Kurtág wrote  ... quasi una fantasia ... as an homage to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. On my first hearing, I didn't quite get the melodic connection though the atmosphere was similarly haunting, with a surreal and ghostly atonality pervading the work.

The 10 minute piece was an extension of the surround sound theme of the Philharmonic 360 series last June (which I missed unfortunately). The piano and timpani were located onstage; the vibraphone, marimba, cimbalom, and percussion in the rear orchestra; the harp and celeste in the first tier, and the strings, winds and brass in the third tier. It was certainly novel and very interesting but the size of the Avery Fisher Hall pretty much guaranteed a dynamic imbalance for most of the audience, especially for those who were seated next to one of the groups of instruments (like me).

I've always thought of Andsnes as a cerebral rather than an overtly emotional pianist and so it was interesting to hear him in Beethoven's third piano concerto, which admittedly seems more Mozartean than the composer's unabashedly Romantic later works. Andsnes brought his formidable technique into play especially in the first cadenza where he deployed the most brilliant runs and arpeggios I've ever heard in a live performance. His Largo was noble and profound, and the third movement was just exhiblirating. A wonderful performance indeed.

The Rite of Spring may no longer seem so shocking nowadays but it's still a riveting orchestral piece. Gilbert conducted the score with great polish and incisiveness, perhaps underplaying the raw expressionism a bit, but still full of dramatic splendor even without the original ballet.

The program was broadcasted live on WQXR and you can still listen to the recording here. The best thing about the concert? I got an orchestra seat with my student discount - for $13.50. The Philharmonic could very well turn into a weekly habit for me. I'm certainly looking forward to the rest of the season.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Step Up to the Plate

Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras) is a new movie about the Michelin three star restaurant Michel et Sébastien Bras in Laguiole, France.

The restaurant is situated on a hill about 300 miles from Paris in a modern glass structure with sweeping views of the countryside. Just like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the film focuses on the father Michel passing the stewardship of the restaurant to his son Sébastien.

The documentary is divided into four segments named after the seasons and features snippets of Michel's and Sébastien's daily life: selecting vegetables in the market in the early morning, preparing for dinner service, and after hours relaxation.

The film is also about the creative process and how childhood shapes one's culinary preferences. It opens with Michel explaining and assembling Gargouillo, his complex herb and vegetable course. The most interesting sequence shows Sébastien developing a new dish based on a childhood snack prepared by his grandparents, and then reinterpreting the dish in Hokkaido using Japanese ingredients.

Step Up to the Plate is essentially about food as art, the lifelong dedication that goes with it, the dynamics of tradition versus innovation, and familial heritage. It's a must-see for foodies and anyone who appreciates the hard work that goes behind a great dish.

This inspiring documentary is currently playing at the Quad and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wagner's Dream on PBS

Last night PBS presented Wagner's Dream, a documentary by Susan Froemke about Robert Lepage's new production of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera.

I've seen all four operas over the past two seasons and very much enjoyed Lepage's technical wizardry and pioneering vision. It was courageous of him to even conceive of such a high-tech, futuristic production for the conservative Wagnerian audience at the Met.

Predictably, critical reaction was hostile, particularly Anthony Tommasini's dismissive review for the New York Times. But this didn't affect my enjoyment of the Ring at all. Over the years I've come to realize anyway that music critics don't really have the qualifications to assess theatrical innovation in a knowledgeable manner. Let's just leave it at that.

Wagner's Dream features Lepage and his team conceiving and working out the various problems of this hugely expensive production, particularly the logistics of the main setpiece consisting of oscillating planks with digital projections.

Deborah Voigt, the most affecting Brünnhilde that I've ever seen in a live performance, is featured in extended interviews, and it was fascinating to watch her and Lepage negotiate some of the trickier aspects of the blocking and direction. I've also never seen the backstage of the Met before and was fascinated by scene behind the scene.

PBS will be broadcasting the entire Ring starting with Das Rheingold this evening, Die Walküre tomorrow, Siegfried on Thursday, and Götterdämmerung on Friday. The operas, including Wagner's Dream, are also available on DVD at the Met Opera Shop. I'm glad that this visionary production is finally getting a wider audience.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ornette: Made In America

My friend Joe, a music producer and hardcore jazz expert, once told me that most people don't "get" jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman on first hearing. Indeed, it took Joe several years to form an appreciation of the musician, whom he now considers his hero. Joe even took an Ornette Coleman class at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Swing University last year.

As a recreational jazz fan, I'll have to admit that Ornette Coleman's music is quite challenging. It's not accessible "smooth jazz" at all. Rather, Coleman's music is discordant, dissonant, cacophonic, and a bit grating as far as my nerves are concerned.

I decided to check out Ornette: Made In America, a recently refurbished 1984 documentary, just to see what all the fuss was about. The film is structured around a 1983 concert where Coleman's band performed with the Fort Worth Symphony.

Shirley Clark, the director, made a film that visually matched Coleman's music. The documentary isn't straightforward or even all that informative. Instead it focuses on improvisation, going off in many elliptical tangents - flashbacks, voiceovers, interviews, psychedelic visual effects - totally incoherent yet somehow perfectly suited to Coleman's groundbreaking and uncategorizable musicianship.

Did it change my mind about Coleman? Yes, in a way. The music seemed so indecipherable at first, but by the end of the movie I felt like I was listening to Stravinsky. Perhaps I was beginning to understand Coleman's genius.

See it for yourself. The documentary in currently showing at IFC Film Center.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

New York Times demotes Allan Kozinn as music critic

Yesterday, Norman Lebrecht's blog Slipped Disc reported that the New York Times has demoted music critic Allan Kozinn to a new post called "general cultural reporter" in order to create a vacancy for the hiring of freelance music and opera critic Zachary Woolfe.

I'm only hearing one side of the story, of course, but still... the politics at the Times is disheartening. I've always enjoyed Kozinn's informative, engaging reviews, and always thought of him as a fair and insightful critic, so much better than some of the newer writers whose commentaries can seem so trite and obvious. Kozinn's articles have been an inspiration for my own blog posts even though I can never hope to achieve the depth of his knowledge and perspective.

The article was a bit cryptic about the inner machinations of the classical music department:
The reasons are purely internal. Culture Editor Jon Landman knows he has a problem in the classical department. The chief critic Anthony Tommasini is thought to have failed to win the confidence of New York’s opinion formers.
Most of the comments voiced support for Kozinn, including one from Paula (Kozinn's partner?) who described Kozinn's extensive preparation for reviews:
I’ve attended hundreds of performances with Allan, and he is always interested in what he’s hearing — no matter how many times he’s heard the piece or orchestra before, or what a weak rendition it is. He hears every note and all the variables. Rather than feeling bored, he’s fascinated by each nuance. That’s what makes him so good at what he’s been doing for so long.

And he doesn’t just go to the concerts and throw together a review. The day of the concert includes listening to various versions of the piece, revisiting the scores and the earlier (when they exist) and latest works by the performers, reading volumes of related information, researching links for the online version and sifting through old and erroneous info often put out by the groups themselves.

Our home is a library. He has built a priceless collection of music, scores and books. It is a very rare occasion that he needs to hear something and does not already have it ,here, in his collection (usually in many versions), no matter how new or obscure. Just taking photos of the walls of CDs and books would fill an album. To give you an idea of how extensive this is — just one part of his collection contains an estimated 180,180 CDs. We have an entire wall of scores, alone.

Not to take anything away from other writers, particularly Steve Smith and others who I have a great deal of respect for, no one can hold a candle to Allan in term of expertise. I see firsthand, that his entire day — every day — as well as vacations and days off are consumed by this passion of his.
One dissenter, Jane, said:
Get a GRIP!

For TOO LONG the NY Times contemporary classical reviews have completely lacked the diversity of opinion found in, for example, the book reviews. Reviews of every concert – as in literally ever concert – range from pretty good to amazing. Is there no bad music in New York? Really?

There is no objectivity in the writing. Kozinn (and even Smith) proudly “like” and back-slap the very people they’re writing about – on Facebook of all places – for all to see. The New York music scene has become a very chummy club between the reviewers and their subjects.

A contemporary composer can proudly post their Smith/Kozinn review to Facebook, tag the review onto the reviewers Wall, and get it “liked” back by the very same reviewer (or their partners). What message does that send out?

Just read all the posts on here and currently on Facebook. God forbid an independent critic is appointed.

Some professionalism and maybe training the NY Times reviewers on how to and how not to use social media might be a good idea. Alex Ross gets its right: there’s a “Chinese wall” attitude to his handling of his reviews and their subjects.

Indeed, I can't recall any negative classical music reviews (excluding opera) in the Times over the past few years so perhaps Jane has a point.  

At any rate, an online petition to reinstate Kozinn has gathered over 800 signatures here. We'll see how this  plays out.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Janet Cardiff at MoMA PS1 and the Park Avenue Armory

The Canadian installation artist Janet Cardiff has two stellar projects currently on view in New York City for a few more days.

For the first piece, The Forty Part Motet, Cardiff arranged 40 speakers in a loft at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. Each speaker plays a recording of a single voice singing Thomas Tallis's 16th century polyphonic motet Spem in alium, giving the listener the effect of standing in the middle of a choir.

This sacred music was written in 1570 for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass voices without instrumentation. It reverberates through your core and induces a definite spiritual high. This composition lasts for about 10 minutes, and will be at PS1 until September 4, 2012.

The second piece, The Murder of Crows, is a far more ambitious work. Conceived in 2008. Cardiff, in collaboration with George Bures Miller, installed 98 speakers in the cavernous Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory.

In the center of the room, through a megaphone set upon spotlit table, Cardiff's voice narrates three vaguely connected nightmares that she had in Africa, accompanied by surreal layers of moving sound effects that include chanting Tibetan nuns, factory noises, guitars and strings, crashing waves, the beating of giant wings, a choral sequence, and marching bands.

According to the artists,
The title for the installation is ‘The Murder of Crows’, which means a grouping of crows. Sometimes when a crow dies, many other crows flock to the area around the dead bird and caw for over 24 hours, creating a ‘crow funeral’. The title also provides a thematic entry into the installation; a basis to create a work that becomes a metaphor for our political situation today.  
I wasn't sure that I got the political metaphor, unless the artists were alluding to social unrest and economic uncertainty in many parts of the world. The whole effect was certainly dreamlike and disturbing. The 30 minute sequence is played in a continuous loop. I listened to it twice, first sitting in the center of the room, then (as many others were doing) walking around the space to experience the swirling soundscape. Really fantastic.

This rarely presented work is part of the Mostly Mozart Festival and will be on view at the Park Avenue Armory until September 9, 2012.

(photos courtesy of MoMA PS1 and Huffington Post)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Closing Night at Mostly Mozart

Louis Langrée, conductor
Martin Fröst, clarinet
Layla Claire, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Paul Appleby, tenor
Matthew Rose, bass
Concert Chorale of New York
James Bagwell, director

MOZART: Clarinet Concerto (1791)
BEETHOVEN: Mass in C major (1807)

Mostly Mozart ended its season with a program featuring Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and Beethoven's Mass in C major.

The concerto has been one of my favorites ever since I first heard it in the film Out of Africa. The Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst gave a splendid account, clearly articulating the bass, alto, and soprano voices of his instrument in a way that suggested murmured conversation or even lovers' vows. The second movement was lovely - it bloomed like a rose and Fröst's wistful recapitulation of the opening theme was almost heartbreaking.

For an encore Fröst played Giora Feidman's spirited Let's Be Happy as arranged by his younger brother, Goran Fröst. The jazz rhythms provided a nice contrast to Mozart and Fröst seemed to relish playing the piece. The applause from the audience was deafening.

From the 1790s to 1800s, Prince Nicholas Esterhazy II commissioned a new mass to be performed on the Sunday following the name day of his wife, Princess Maria Elisabeth. Haydn, who was Beethoven's teacher, handled these assignments until Beethoven received the commission in 1807.

Beethoven's first liturgical attempt was structured within the framework of the ordinary mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo. Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei). Esterhazy, however, was flippantly dismissive of the high seriousness and reverential orchestration of the work, and the offended composer refused to dedicate this piece to him.

The Mass is rarely performed nowadays since it has been overshadowed by Missa Solemnis and the composer's late masterpieces. I felt blessed to have heard this Mass in a live performance. The choral writing is glorious and the Concert Chorale sang magnificently. The parts for soprano, mezzo, tenor, and bass seemed more integrated with the chorus (compared to Mozart's Requiem and Mass in C minor anyway) but Layla Claire, Sasha Cooke, Paul Appleby, and Matthew Rose nevertheless sang with clarity and passion.

In both pieces Louis Langrée conducted the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with true elegance and refinement. He will be the new music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra next year. They are indeed lucky to have him.

The program will be repeated tonight at 8:00 pm in Avery Fisher Hall.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Njideka Akunyili at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Last weekend, I discovered the work of Njideka Akunyili at the Primary Sources Artists-in-Residence exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Akunyili was born in Nigeria in 1983 and attended Swarthmore College, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and Yale University. This New York-based artist explores the tension between African tradition and modern Western culture in large scale works that combine painting, collage, xerox transfers, and other mixed media.

These stunning assemblages are big enough to completely dominate your field of vision and I spent quite a bit of time looking at layers upon layers of imagery. A prevailing theme seems to be Akunyili's cultural ambivalence towards her current life in New York City as well as her tender, and seemingly conflicted, relationship with a Caucasian man.

Even though Akunyili's paintings reminded me of Romare Bearden and Gustav Klimt, her visual vocubulary is very much her own. It's an intriguing glimpse into one artist's encounter with a foreign world as well as her attempts to reconcile two different value systems.

Her work will be on view until October 21, 2012. Visit her website for more images.

Nwantinti (2012)
Acrylic, charcoal, pencil color, collage, and xerox transfers on paper
8 ft. × 5.57 ft.

Wedding Portrait (2012)
Acrylic, pastel, color pencils, marble dust, xerox transfers, and fabric on paper
4.5 ft. × 5.25 ft.

Witch Doctor Revisited (2011)
Acrylic, charcoal, pastel, colored pencil, collage, and xerox transfers on paper
4.25 ft. × 6.3 ft.